Better than BFI’s Top 100: 65-61

For a brief introduction and a running list of movies covered in this project, click here


65 Straw Dogs (1971), directed by Sam Peckinpah

Why didn’t they call it The Violent Bear Trap It Away? Hee hee.

Seriously, though, when that thing finally goes off I gasped. It was not a cute “Oh, merciful heavens” gasp, but one where I felt myself straining for more air because it felt like my body had stopped. Released in what is a famously violent year for Anglo-American cinema—Alex DeLarge sings in the rain, Popeye Doyle shoots a man in the back—Straw Dogs is, to my mind, pretty easily the most violent and most disturbing movie of the year. From the beginning, when David and Amy are driving back to the little house they’re renting, there are people watching. The men look on, lascivious and envious of David’s pretty blonde wife, his car, his ability to relocate across the Atlantic. All of it is in their piggy eyes, laughed out in harsh, abrasive guffaws. Peckinpah lets you know that someone is watching, and as the movie continues the most important someone watching is us. Peckinpah amassed real criticism for the lurid violence in the film, especially a long and deeply uncomfortable rape scene which I’m not exactly rarin’ to defend myself. But he sees a darkness in his characters which is not unrealistic, and whether those faults are primarily covetous or supercilious or helpless, they are rewarded with violence which is not stylish in the least. There is blood, and there is shock, but it is not cool. Guns are not a primary weapon here; the war is fought with fists and bludgeons and the tenacity that comes from pride. Or maybe it’s just drunkenness. In any event, Peckinpah’s movie is not a celebration of violence for a cause or for its look or for how it will ramp up his audience; this is more like Haneke or Klimov than Spielberg or Tarantino.

The end of the film is a straight home invasion. David is sheltering a man of having done something terrible to a local girl (played by a mostly anonymous David Warner), and despite the presence of multiple men in the house who are intent on taking Niles out so they can kill him, David stands his ground. (Niles accidentally killed the young woman they’re looking for; he’s only at the house because David hit him with his car in the fog; David is only in the car because Amy wanted to leave a local event where her rapists were leering at her. Violence is a tight series of concentric circles indeed.) Somewhere along the way—it’s after he’s helped Peter Vaughan blow his foot off, but it’s well before he breaks Del Henney’s neck with an antique—he is beating a man to death with a piece of iron. He is getting his abdomen into it, is halfway to a decent golf stroke, and then you can see on his face that he’s realizing what’s happened. He puts one more blow into the man. It’s not hard, but it’s one that he knows he shouldn’t have done, and yet he does it anyway.

64) Brooklyn (2015), directed by John Crowley

Brooklyn is one of the boldest movies I’ve ever seen. Think of it: the movie sets up an achingly beautiful love story. There is real tenderness in the feelings that Eilis and Tony develop for each other. Almost everyone has been kind to Eilis in America—even the other girls in the boardinghouse, who are not always the friendliest, aren’t so catty with her—but much of it is polite and a little distant. Mrs. Keogh offers Eilis the best room in the house after a little while, but one could hardly be friends with someone your mother’s age. (This does not mean that I would not want to be friends with Mrs. Keogh. Julie Walters didn’t need a whole bunch of screen time to be screamingly funny in this movie.) Eilis’ supervisor has too many expectations for her to ever be close. Other men in America notice that she’s pretty and strike up a conversation, but they don’t seem awfully interested in her. Tony is interested in her almost immediately, amazed by her intelligence and her quiet ambition, struck by her beauty, in a hurry to take her home so she can meet his family. Speaking in that slow voice, Emory Cohen makes every word into an ode to Tony’s disbelief that she’s interested in him, too. He tells her he loves her. She panics and says nothing. The next time they meet, Eilis has a speech prepared, one that saves the best part for last:

Eilis: …So the next time you tell me you love me, if there is a next time, I’ll—I’ll say ‘I love you, too.’

Tony: You mean it?

Eilis: Holy shit.

Their time together is unbearably, maybe even comically, romantic. Early evenings in New York City, sitting on park benches and riding in trolleys. Day trips to Coney Island in a crowd of thousands. After a while, he takes her out to Long Island, showing her a patch of land where he and his brothers have already planned to settle down and build big houses near each other. The subtext is clear, although Tony is not really one for subtext, and so he puts it out there: I want to marry you and live here with you and raise a family with you. After everything Eilis has worked through, after having been very much the second fiddle to her adoring but shinier older sister in Ireland, after the worst boat voyage for an Irishwoman since the Titanic, after homesickness as potent as polio, after her sister’s sudden death: commitment. The movie could have ended there and it still might have made this list.

Then, of course, Brooklyn goes back to Ireland and puts a knife right between the ribs of its love story. Jim, a good-looking, mature, and reasonably well-off fellow, takes a shine to her while she’s back in her little town to comfort her mother, and then proceeds to dig that knife in centimeter by centimeter. When she comes home to Tony—who she married before getting back on the boat—she smiles at him and embraces him and the sun shines on them. But it’s not quite the same; the movie has dashed that achingly beautiful love story with something caustic, cheapened the relationship in our eyes. While she was in Ireland, she did not answer his letters. She let everyone believe that she was free, but most of all Jim. She only decides to come home again with a firm hand when her former boss, a patronizing gossip and the kind of woman they used to duck once upon a time, decides to spill a very hot cup of tea. Through it all, the film develops Eilis, and Saiorse Ronan gives a performance that I’m afraid she may never equal in her career. At the beginning of the movie, she is a scared and delicate little girl. At the end, she is a woman who has made profound choices over and over again, even if it has crumpled her delicacy for good.

63) Life Is Sweet (1990), directed by Mike Leigh

In Sondheim’s Passion, one character sings, somehow plaintively and wryly, that she knows “how painful dreams can be, unless you know they’re merely dreams.” Wendy knows they’re merely dreams. Her job is not all that interesting and it doesn’t bring in all that much money. She encourages her husband and his friend, Aubrey, both of whom have culinary hopes which are basically ridiculous for men their age. Andy is a fairly successful chef in an industrial kitchen, but all that’s done is make him yearn for an opportunity to prove that he still has it, a chance to be his own boss. Aubrey is a straight weirdo, the kind of person who does everything to set up a restaurant short of advertising it so people will, y’know, show up. The movie does not give us any indicators to make us believe that Aubrey is good at anything. And yet Wendy says nothing about the little trailer her husband brings home, intending to quit his job and begin a job, basically, as a food truck. She does one better for Aubrey; she takes him up on an offer of employment, deciding to wait tables at the place, although her single night’s work at the Regret Rien is in keeping Aubrey from setting himself or his place on fire. Of her daughters, Natalie has safe dreams, like visiting America someday; Wendy doesn’t do much about Natalie’s hopes, since Natalie seems quite capable of making her own way. The other, Nicola, is an unholy mess, a human scab that refuses to come off cleanly; if Nicola would cop to a dream, let alone a plan, Wendy would be thrilled. Virtually everyone comes to recognize their dreams are unattainable, and the experiences are painful. Nicola’s ersatz boyfriend gives up on her. Aubrey’s restaurant fails. Andy breaks his ankle. What’s remarkable about Life Is Sweet is that those failures are just that. They are not crushing moments which make it impossible for any of these people to bounce back; they will go on. Aubrey is too self-assured to be badly hurt by his restaurant’s failure, and Andy is too good-natured to let the broken ankle keep him down forever. Nicola goes outside with her sister and has a straightforward conversation in the sunshine. Life is sweet, but it’s not saccharine, and in this movie Mike Leigh proved he was one of a very select number of filmmakers who could make that kind of sweetness entirely honest.

Life Is Sweet soft-pedals this idea a little more, but it’s the one that makes the film truly sad: kindness comes at cost. For Andy to maintain his good humor, Wendy has to keep up her constant patter of cheerful, slightly blue conversation. For Nicola to make a start on putting her life together in a responsible way, Natalie must give up the money she’s been saving to go to America. Once again, these feel like real choices that people make as opposed to convenient plot devices. It does not strain credulity for us to believe that Natalie, in all her sensibility and concern for her wayward twin, would be willing to start over. She is gainfully employed as a plumber and can expect to continue on there. Wendy’s sacrifices feel a little more forced, but there’s a reason that many of us think of our mothers as people who have sacrificed parts of themselves for their families. When Andy is irresponsible, as when she finds him sleeping, drunk, in his squalid little trailer, she doesn’t hesitate to let him know he’s done wrong. And when Nicola is too snotty for her to bear anymore, Wendy’s affirmation of love is punctuated with “you stupid girl.” Perhaps she has bigger dreams than she lets on, but no one can expect her to be silent.

62) The Cruel Sea (1953), directed by Charles Frend

The Cruel Sea is Britain’s answer to Battleground, although where Battleground is more novelty, The Cruel Sea is more substance. This is Ericson’s story (played by Jack Hawkins in a vulnerable, finely drawn performance), and his story is a melancholy one. Shot in dim black-and-white and starring characters whose only safety is the foul weather that plays havoc with a U-boat’s ability to torpedo their little ship, The Cruel Sea understands all too well the dull horror of war. Ericson is, at the film’s outset, no more a soldier than the majority of the men he commands. His only advantage is really a disadvantage; he is the only real sailor aboard. Much of the movie is devoted to rigmarole of the Compass Rose, the cramped underdecks, the unyielding indifference of the elements. What the books about war are filled with (and this was a book by Nicholas Monserrat first) is that soldiers are bored until they are scared; The Cruel Sea is no different. What it takes to train a crew and make officers is given significant time. There’s a little bit of In Which We Serve on the menu, and just as in Lean and Coward’s earlier movie, death is no respecter of characters; men and women die, at home or on the sea. What makes all of this work is the performances; none of them are quite as good as Hawkins’ increasingly haunted and snappish Ericson, but the men playing officers (Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, John Warner, Stanley Baker, briefly), do well for themselves.

The war pitches increasingly difficult tasks for Ericson as the movie goes on. The first is his choice to destroy a U-boat even though he knows that the depth charge will obliterate the survivors of the merchant ship that the U-boat just torpedoed. It is an agonizing scene, and it feels as long to us as it must to Ericson, who is cursed with command and thus has to make decisions which will benefit more people down the road, even if it means executing his countrymen in the water who see an English destroyer and can hope for rescue. Not long after, as if the universe has decided against the Compass Rose for her captain’s hard-heartedness, it is torpedoed. The ship goes down; a handful of men, including Ericson and Morell, survive, but not before Ericson, standing on the bridge in front of his system of pipes to give orders, can hear the screaming of men in pain, knowing they’ll drown, beginning to die. It’s an affecting scene for us; for him, it all but breaks him. Onboard his new ship, he goes aboard and takes a swing at his third task. Although bigger and more powerful, the communications on Saltash Castle are just like those on Compass Rose, and when he stands on the bridge for the first time, all he can see is the place for him to shout orders, and all he can hear are the terrified, dying men he outlived. It is as bleak and serious a depiction of PTSD as I’ve seen in a fictional movie, and although Ericson has become harder and more difficult throughout the war—and why not?—he has not become inhuman. The Cruel Sea, at its best, writes survivor’s guilt in giant letters and dares us to read them, knowing that there is no way for us to avoid the secondhand pain being felt by the soldiers who won that war at the expense of their minds.


61) Watership Down (1978), directed by Martin Rosen

I love this shot, one of the last of Watership Down. The movie is a beautiful one, rich in its backdrops and sure-handed in its depiction of these little rabbits going a long way. They move well, sit well, and die well. When Hazel dies to join the Owsla of El-ahrairah, the patron god of rabbits, his body falls to the ground. Solid chocolate brown and twisted over itself, the body is clearly dead. But his soul, if that’s what it is, precisely, pops up, alert and clever. We can practically see him smelling the air for danger, feeling around him for temperature and wind. His soul is thin, penciled, shadowy, but on the whole a much more realistic vision of a rabbit than the corpse it has risen from. (Interestingly, when we see El-ahrairah at the beginning of the movie, he and his world are drawn in a style which is angular and geometric against a white background.) It’s especially appropriate for Hazel, who was something of an everyman for most of his life; the only thing exceptional about him is his calm, firm leadership style, and it’s his inner strength that is noteworthy here at the end of his life. Then there’s that little spiderweb in the bottom left corner of the frame, and it reminds me of Whitman’s noiseless patient spider. The second stanza:

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.
Hazel has risked a great deal to come to Watership Down, where he has built his warren that seems likely to stand the test of time. He left what appeared to be a safe warren on no more than the prophetic advice of his runt brother; he dodged two other warrens which would have ended in near-certain death. Cats and dogs and other rabbits have threatened his safety and the safety of his friends. But he has cast his soul out to find the place where he can make a home in perpetuity. The English countryside, to a bunny, must seem like “measureless oceans of space,” and with something like a knowing smile on his face, he knows that there is another measureless ocean that separates him from the land of El-ahrairah, where his “gossamer thread” will land.
Watership Down is a great movie about fear, which is fitting for a movie about rabbits on the move and out in the open. (It’s also fitting for a movie that tends to land on Internet lists of “scariest animated movies.”) The movie’s prologue features one of the great lines in the novel the film is based on, and it’s one of the great lines in Anglophone movies for the way it sets the tone: “All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies. And whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first, they must catch you…” Fiver’s initial prophecy that the warren he and his brother live in will be expunged with blood that covers the fields itself turns out to be mostly true, and it’s the shot of a pinky-red coat falling over the world that sends a little shiver through your spine. Although ambition is not unwelcome, too much confidence in one’s own strength is a clear path to a fall. Bigwig, the strongest of the rabbits that Hazel takes with him from the warren, is overconfident, clearly the tough guy in a group of dweebs who never quite ascended to importance where they were. It is not long that they are on their journey when he is caught in a trap. The blood spills from the corners of his mouth, the breath rasps from him, and it is only by the intervention of the other rabbits that he is saved. From then on, Bigwig is a wiser rabbit, one who can better appreciate “But first, they must catch you…”

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